...the city goes soft; it awaits the imprint of an identity. For better or worse, it invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape you can live in. You, too. Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form around you. Decide what it is, and your own identity will be revealed, like a position on a map fixed by triangulation.
A large argument! nor a provable one. Most of the book is much more specific, though, usually a precise account of the social changes afflicting the poor and grimy London neighborhoods Raban lived in as a young freelance writer in the 1970s. I should think it was nearly unreadable for a couple of decades while it was just out of date; it is aging back into interest. For the US, at least, some of the interest comes from the image of London as a city permanently decaying and being renewed block by block (fashion and mortgage rules between them froze the renewal for a couple of decades in the States). Raban's general descriptions probably fit New York a decade later and smaller cities now.
Bits I liked: several sections analyzing the minimalist, anxious style of white-paint, open-floorplan gentrifiers. A little of what Raban assumes matches a history of Victorian London:
This style is a strategy of urban disengagement; it is a deliberate renunciation of almost every possibility afforded by the city. [...] (Significantly, London is unique amongst capital cities in that its middle class regard it as a right to live in a whole house and not in an apartment.)
Raban goes on to say that his gentrifiers are buying not just real-estate but the idea and practicality of neighborliness; "Community is becoming an increasingly expensive commodity". I wonder how that played out over thirty years. Community doesn't seem like a commodity that would stay bought.
There are many sections on surface, and style, and style communities and signals, and even on what kind of shopping is neccessary to maintain style; part of the argument is that the size and motion of cities requires them. Raban manages to discuss all this with very few brand-names or shop names, and only loose descriptions, which is probably why it's still readable; but I think the descriptions are specific enough that someone who was an adult in the '70s would know what he was talking about. (White-painted Moroccan birdcages were stylish? Ouch.) The birdcage chapter also summarizes Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, which categorized the street masses by their occupations and access to materials; but Raban divides his contemporaries by what they buy. I am never much impressed by claims that consumer identity has explanatory power; sumptuary laws date back at least to ancient Rome, so consumer identity can't be new and thus doesn't automatically explain whatever new thing is under discussion; but it may be that sumptuary laws and consumer identity are an urban phenomenon. (That would make urban; a laughable concept from my vantage, or a cheerful one if it means urbanity is really winning, or a depressing one if only the shallowest parts of urbanity are winning. On the other hand, Mayhew evidently divided all people into the Settled and the Wanderers, and explained urbanites rich and poor as being Wanderers, and nearly subhuman to boot; no side of this argument is new.)
Of course, I like his description of Moroccan birdcages as the use of culch in fashion, or possibly the use of fashion to keep the culch-pile well churned.
Raban only leaves London twice in this book; once while visiting Cambridge, where he is surprised by the isolationist attitudes (and tax policy) of each district of Boston; and horrified by its effects in, for instance, Roxbury, which (I guess) wouldn't have fallen so far in London, because London recognized itself as a city and connected all its parts. After all Raban's outsiderness and observation, after his praise of London's contingency and privacy, after his despair in his youth not fitting into villages and small towns that weren't playing at conformity, Roxbury moves him to a moral opinion, phrased with remarkable lack of vanity: "More than anything else, I would like, sometime, to be a capable citizen."
We live in cities badly; we have built them up in culpable innocence and now fret helplessly in a synthetic wilderness of our own construction. We need—more urgently than architectural utopias, ingenious traffic disposal systems, or ecological programmes—to comprehend the nature of citizenship, to make a serious imaginative assessment of that special relationship between the self and the city; its unique plasticity, its privacy and freedom.
ISBN: 1860461077So wrote clew in Cities. , History (20th c.). | TrackBack